A Letter To: Someone I Want To Hate But Just Can’t…

I haven’t written a letter-blog for a while. Now feels like a good time. Usual disclaimer applies.

As I think you’ve gathered, I was brought up with an interest in current affairs and politics, and with a certain sort of worldview. The fact a lot of people where I grew up didn’t share said worldview (I grew up in Bucks – mine and theirs are probably inferable enough from that…) only made me cling to it more doggedly and feel that those who thought differently were attacking me. At times, a difference of opinion felt like being hit in the stomach and if I found out someone had a view I was brought up not to agree with I’d agonise over whether we could still be friends. I was told that being too strident and politically-engaged could intimidate people. Before I went to university (in this state of mind…) an older alumnus gently advised me that if I toned down the social-justice-warrior thing I might find it a bit easier to make friends.

I did gradually tone it down when I got there – probably helped by Durham being insular and fairly politically-apathetic  – but most of the friends I made had broadly the same instincts as me, except for a couple of Tory blokes, one of whom’s distinguishing feature was that he once did a cracking dinnertime impression of the Reverend Ian Paisley seducing Tony Blair (don’t ask…). We dealt with one another mainly by trying to seem not to take ourselves too seriously, and I half-convinced myself his opinions were the result of internal damage from the amount of alcohol and Red Bull he put away. Towards the end of my final year (after a dismal failed fling with the treasurer of Durham Socialist Students…yes, I know…) I fleetingly wondered if we could sleep together out of curiosity, but then decided it would be too awkward because, well, because being 22 is too awkward, and he had a huge crush on another girl anyway. Also, I was worried he’d reprise his Ian Paisley/Tony Blair skit in the middle and put me off sex for the rest of my life.

After university and journalism school I mooched around on the periphery of the online community of bit-lefty, bit-caustic, bit-awkward young women hoping for a New Statesman byline (I’ve cracked the Guardian, Times and Telegraph but still not the NS. The NS just doesn’t fancy me…). Before I’d spoken to you, I’d heard from someone that, frankly, you were a bit of a twat (that same person may well have said similarly unflattering things to you about me…). But when we made contact and met, you were smart, funny, interested and interesting. For whatever reason, you opened up, and didn’t behave as though you were too big to talk to me. Soon we found a common ground we could never have imagined. The few slivers of twattery that broke through looked like the last remnants of an era you’d moved away from. It was as if a profound switch was suddenly happening in my head. For one of a handful of times in my life, I was able to look across at someone and feel our similarities and mutual vulnerabilities mattered more than our likely differences. I recognised this approach was probably a positive way forward, because – gasp – looking for reasons to like people is generally a healthier approach to life than looking for reasons to get cross with them.

A couple of other things occurred around the same time to add to that recognition. One, sections of the internet social justice fraternity gradually started doing my head in: those who never had the benefit of a Gentle Word like I did at 18, and have ended up so full of antagonistic rage they’re incapable of getting on with anybody, even people broadly of the same stripe (the 25-year-olds from Northampton who write everything in teen Americanisms and spend more time reading about marginalised groups than talking to any are especially delightful….). Secondly, I lost a close friend. As dearly as I loved him, at times he could be quite a stick in the mud who would do things like block people summarily on social media for saying or liking anything he didn’t like. I sensed this stubbornness probably didn’t help his overall mental state and resolved to try to live the rest of my life with that in mind.

But there are problems. Oh, there are problems. Of course. There are reasons I shouldn’t like you far more fundamental than any to do with background or politics. On one hand I want to feel proud to have embraced the enemy, grown, matured and all that self-help caper, but at the same time my life would be ten times simpler if I could just hate you. Or at least forget you. Or at least, stop my brain from thinking liking you is some sort of virtue or test. It isn’t. It isn’t a real test because I don’t have to live or work with you, and if you grate on me I can just turn away rolling my eyes. I am not endlessly forced to listen to you rant emptily at some honcho in the news who you hate because of something he did fifteen years ago which I have no idea about because fifteen years ago I was in a Um Bongo-scented classroom learning about wars and algebra, surrounded by girls who preferred Billie to Tori Amos (those too old or young to remember Billie Piper as a pop star, you are fortunate souls; acting really was the better choice…). Why, for God’s sake, why did my Great Adult Epiphany About Life have to come from you and not someone who can be something tangible and real instead of the usual residual nonsense, when I’ve already had thirteen years of nonsense, and enough guilt to start my own religion? (thanks, Tori)

I don’t know what it is about you but you’re still far too easy to warm to. I’ve tried to think of what it would take to make me hate you and I can’t, or I can, but then think it’s not reason enough to outweigh the goodness. Whenever you tip your hat to someone I wouldn’t choose to share the earth with let alone endorse in public, I just end up thinking back to those moments of empathy and feeling like I’d forgive you anything. Yes, you’re a weirdo with an erratic brain-to-mouth filter but it takes one to know one. In our own ways, we’re two impossibly-stubborn people who’ve edged slightly closer to the middle ground and bumped into each other there…

I just wish it had been under different circumstances…

And now you’re indirectly responsible for putting a Billie Piper single into my head for the first time this century and I can’t even hate you for that….

“Blue isn’t red. Everybody knows this. And I wonder, when will I learn? Guess I was in deeper than I thought I was…”  Tori Amos, ‘Strange

An Unsent Letter To: Those Who Say “You’re Just A Bit Awkward”

I don’t often write about disability etiquette matters specifically in relation to myself because in the grand scheme of things,and in comparison to how horrifically I hear of some people being treated, I have a pretty lovely, supportive bunch of friends and family. I’m incredibly fortunate to be in that position, and I don’t mean this as an attack on anyone. However, there is just one niggling little thing I want to pick up on. It’s when I mention being dyspraxic (usually off the back of some recent advocacy work I’ve done) and people say something along the lines of: “I wouldn’t have noticed you had anything wrong with you, you’re just a bit awkward sometimes, that’s all.” I understand that by this you mean well. I know you’re trying to be upbeat, flattering, or comforting. I absolutely get that, and thank you. But unfortunately it isn’t.

When you say it, I know you’ve probably picked up on something specific that I do, or have done, in your presence but you’re too uncomfortable to be specific about it, so you’re going for a vague adjective – “awkward”, “quiet”, or “uncomfortable” – in the hope that it’ll sound more palatable. It doesn’t, though. If anything, it’s more uncomfortable than if you’d been specific. It means I burn up energy raking back through every interaction with you trying to think what incident(s) you might mean, which can be upsetting. If you’re too embarrassed to be specific (and I don’t blame you – unless you know someone incredibly well and are very self-assured yourself it’s not easy to tell them directly that you’ve noticed when they seem to struggle with a simple task, or look disoriented and ill-at-ease…) then really it’s better not to say anything at all. Think about it: Would you tell a partner you thought that they were “a bit awkward” in bed without telling them how and expect them to take it well? No, probably not (No-one has ever said this to me about bedroom antics, incidentally. Not to brag or anything but I’ve had no complaints in that department. Maybe the hormonal stew kills a lot of the awkwardness on both sides). Cough cough, I digress…

I think that also you probably reckon saying ‘slightly awkward’ rather than ‘very’ and ‘sometimes’ rather than ‘often’ makes it sound more positive – as though it’s only a small problem, not a major, repellant one. But quite a few people have told me I’m “just a bit awkward sometimes.”  And all of those “sometimes’s” add up to quite a lot of the time. In the end, it basically has the same effect as one person saying “You’re a gigantic freak” would. Think of it like a dripping tap. Sure, one drip isn’t much but if it keeps dripping it becomes a flood. Plus, by saying “I wouldn’t have noticed” it kind of sounds like you’re saying you don’t really believe it. Which I know isn’t what you mean, but when there’s a vocal minority of people who don’t believe it exists (cf: Guardian Comment Is Free), it stings a bit.

And finally, well, being ‘awkward’ is the whole point, isn’t it? That’s why it’s a disability. If it didn’t manifest itself in some way it wouldn’t be one. So pointing out the obvious, however nicely, isn’t helpful or reassuring. If you really want to help someone with dyspraxia (or any condition, for that matter) rather than dissecting how noticeable it is or isn’t and making them feel self-conscious, focus on what you can actually do to help them manage it, feel better, help themselves and help you. That’ll make things less, well, awkward all round.

An Unsent Letter To: The Beauty Industry

(….Specifically to everyone responsible for this….).

I tried to let this one go, I really have. But it’s been about 12 hours and I can’t. I am still intermittently thinking about it and doing my “This is a thing…?!” face (see also: commercial R&B, UKIP, these things written about a tennis player). So, steady yourselves, for this may blow your fragile minds in the heat, but there are some situations I don’t particularly care about looking nice in.

I’m not a beauty writer; when I do see your promotions it’s usually the daft ones someone’s wanted to share because they’re daft, so forgive my tone here. But really, some of them are daft aren’t they? And the daftest of the daft are for any product or feature that concerns itself with making women look nice a) on flights, or b) during childbirth. If there are two scenarios where I and – I guarantee you, most sensible women alive – couldn’t care less about looking like a sack of shit with eyes, it is those two.

When I’m flying (which is rarely – in my sector the only affordable holiday is a present from your family, and the only business trips I go on are up North by squashed train) there are possibly two things on my mind: Will I get something to eat which isn’t meat and is half-recognisably food? Will my luggage and I get out of here in one piece? Even if, hypothetically, I was Very Important and flying into New York to be greeted at the airport by a Very Important representative of Totes Brillo Inc, if he didn’t understand that a woman who’s just stepped off a six-hour flight mightn’t be catwalk material then frankly you’re better off not doing business. I mean, would you trust him to look after a plastic spoon, let alone the LIBOR rate…?

Similarly, I’m no authority on giving birth. But by my imaginative powers – and knowing a few women who’ve made that particular leap of pain threshold – I can picture a few of the things that might go through a mind in that situation. Guess what – none of them are: “Gosh, if only I had worn mascara and put on some nicely-scented face cream ejecting seven pounds of screaming flesh would be so much less of a bore….!!” Whisper it, doctors have seen lots of women in labour. Unless you’ve mislaid a packet of Pringles or the new Jodi Picoult up your birth canal I don’t think anything’s going to be too much of a shock.

As someone’s dad told my group on Business Awareness Day in Year 10, selling isn’t just about selling, it’s about knowing who to sell to and when. Cosmetics are great but aren’t greatly necessary for every occasion. Like, clowns are great but funerals aren’t really the right demographic, if you see where this is going. At certain levels, taking care of your appearance is a sign of healthy self-respect (trust me, I know where the line is: I’ve been greeted for dinner by a man wearing a grubby yellow high-vis safety vest, * for no occupational reason…) . At certain levels, however, it is a sign of being stonking ridiculous. Understand the difference, please. Sincerely yours.

* I wish I was making that up. I’m not. Just as I wish that article link was made up, and it’s not.

An Unsent Letter To…The Well Intentioned Cad

(Because I’ve reached the point in life when impending birthdays mean beware the annual unwanted text from That One) …

**

It was a couple of years ago, a couple of days into the new year. We went for lunch; the first time we’d met near my home turf. Your body language as you talked about her and your future plans reminded me of the engaged Prince Charles talking about Diana, in that sad interview clip where they’re asked whether they’re in love and he responds: “Whatever love means”. Later on, as you stopped for petrol and dropped me home, you got disproportionately annoyed at me over a trivial misunderstanding, almost as if you were latching onto my flaws to remind yourself you’d made the right choice. This after nearly a year-and-a-half of evasiveness: getting in touch sporadically, trying it on, then shutting down when I mentioned the unmentionable (and on one occasion, having the front to say I was being evasive…). I watched and listened as the man I used to think was one of the kindest and most insightful people I knew displayed probably the most unkind, uninsightful behaviour I’ve ever seen. There was no sense of a renewed love or affection in the way you spoke about her, just an obligation, as though you felt it was somehow your duty to make this work. To quote a line from one of my favourite plays: “Love is not a duty. Duty is for prison warders and torturers.”

Though I don’t know her, I know enough to build up something of a picture of how you first got together: it sounds like the relationship everyone has when they’re young and shy; basically a wholesome friendship with the occasional tentative fiddle you both pretend to be enjoying a bit more than you are. You’d only had one other very difficult relationship before you met her; no-one could blame you for wanting something seemingly safer after that. But I’ve seen what happens when people string one of these situations out for years and it only ever ends one way. You seem to have alternated between ignoring or escaping from the problem and throwing everything at it, and neither seems to have worked. Committing yourself deeper doesn’t strengthen a relationship that was never very strong in the first place – I know at least three people with the divorce papers to prove it.

You once told me you thought that if you were single now, no-one would want you. I fast realised – albeit not quite as fast as I’d have liked – that, despite your encouragement, nothing I said or did was going to make you believe otherwise, so I stopped trying. For what it’s worth, I’m sure plenty of women who haven’t been witness to your aforementioned twattery would be interested in you. But carry on behaving the way you have and indeed, no-one will want you. In fact, no-one with a grain of sense will even like you – especially not your girlfriend when she finds out. I do hope no woman who discovered that her partner’s words about the prospect of spending the next fifty-odd years with her were a resigned: “If I don’t settle down now, I never will” would want to touch that person with a pole ever again.

I don’t know what you’re up to these days – whether you’re engaged, or trying to dodge the subject for as long as possible – but I feel genuinely sorry for her. Whether it’s a mutual relationship of convenience, or she thinks you’re the love of her life, it is not a life I’d wish upon anyone – or upon your children, if you get that far (it’s one thing when mummy and daddy fall out of love, it’s another when they were never in it…).  What’s more, I know I’m part of the fallback circle you’re going to call upon whenever it goes wrong, and I don’t want to be. You’ve deleted your social media profiles, but whether you’ve deleted phone numbers, or stopped searching for people online is another matter (it’s generally considered bad form to actually disclose it to those concerned when you’re systematically googling exes –  not to you, apparently).  I used to think we could stay friends and do the civil annual catchup, but the more time has passed, the less I feel like it. You are the embodiment of the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I’ve written this a reminder to you and to myself of why I want as little to do with you as possible….  Aaaand cue Aretha, Fiona etc

An Unsent Letter To…People who don’t have to fear letters from the bank

“You could see them all bitching by the bar, about the fine line between the rich and the poor…” Drinking in LA, Bran Van 3000

I am in one of those all-or-nothing job sectors where wages range from almost zero to six figures, and where some are on low incomes bolstered into the stratosphere by ‘good’ marriages. This is to the haves, from one of the have-nots…

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An Unsent Letter To…The man who thinks a bad life means he’s entitled to bone someone

Men, don’t take this the wrong way and things, but I need a chat with some of you. I really didn’t think this would need saying to anyone beyond their teens or very early 20s. But it appears to need saying to some men who are much older than that. And that’s quite alarming.

Here is something you may or may not have realised about the different cultural messages men and women get about sex and relationships. Women are brought up believing that we get those things either when we’ve sufficiently prettied ourselves with a mountain of products, or when one of you’s desperate enough to get around to us. If we’re not wanted, it’s probably our fault. Either way, if no-one wants to have sex with us, nothing very awful will happen to us and we just have to suck it up. As it were (I mean, if you read Femail everything in the world is our fault, so what does it matter really…)

You, meanwhile, are brought to believe lovin’ action is a necessity up there with oxygen and water. Your sexuality is a given. Doctors will usually tell you about the sexual side effects of any medication you take, and not dismiss your frustrations about them (yes hello there, undergraduate-era SSRI experience…!) You r’aison d’etre is to persuade some pesky reluctant woman to sleep with you – or pay her to – because if you don’t get any, you’ll shrivel up and bats will rain down from the sky.  Most significantly, if you don’t think you’re attractive enough to persuade someone in a positive way, then appealing for sympathy is said to do the trick. And this, I have a little bit of a problem with. No, a big bit of a problem.

You may’ve inferred I have led not the most charmed and carefree of lives to date. Despite that fact, I’ve never, ever believed anyone owed me sex. Or a relationship. Or even a cup of tea. The reverse in fact. The less charmed and carefree it has been, the less I feel entitled to anything most people feel vaguely entitled to. So it’s quite baffling to encounter some men (and yes, it is always men, not women. Note, I said “some”. Not “lots”, not “all”) who seem to feel that the harsher their life has been the more boning opportunity they are owed. It has nothing to do with whether men want sex more than women, it’s about entitlement. Desire and a sense of entitlement are two different things. I like Italian food, I don’t stand outside Carluccios demanding a free meal because I’m skint, and getting cross with waiters who say I can’t have one…

You are not owed sex because life has dealt you a bad hand. You are not owed sex because you’re lonely, or depressed, or ill. You are not owed sex even if you’ve seen the most horrific sights imaginable (and if you have, I’d suggest you need counselling, not rogering). The only earthly reason anyone should be having sex with you is because they’re attracted to you. Which, if they’re a healthy, sensible individual, should not be solely because you’re vulnerable. And some people won’t be attracted to you; not because there’s anything wrong with them or you but because that’s life and most people aren’t attracted to most people.

I know it’s difficult and awful and painful and all the rest. I really do. I can understand you wanting to find somebody special, and trump all the baggage and barriers in the world to be with them…as long as they feel the same way about you.  When you think someone is obliged to be with you because of anything you are or anything that’s happened to you, that’s when you lose me. If you think that way then frankly, loneliness is the least of your problems.

See also this great post from No Sleep til Brooklands a while ago: Nice Guys and the Friendzone

An Unsent Letter To…Lobster (1972-2011)

This is a tribute to a dear friend of mine – popularly known as “Lobster” and by a plethora of other nicknames – written in July 2011, a few days after he took his own life following a long battle with depression. I’ve re-posted it here now, with minor edits, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the most significant “unsent letter” I’ve ever written and probably will be for a very long time. Secondly, because of recent coverage and discussion pegged to Stephen Fry and Paris Jackson: the process of accepting that there’s something which will always make the news, and never be “just news” to you any more is a long one… Obviously, it’s a disjointed and raw piece of writing by nature, but there’s no graphic detail anywhere. There’s colourful language in abundance (though if you’ve ever met either of us, I doubt that’ll come as much of a surprise…).

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